Dozens of rape victim support centres to open in India

India has been in the global spotlight since the 2012 gang rape and murder of a woman on a New Delhi bus sparked angry protests. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Dozens of support centres for women victims of sexual violence are to open across India under a scheme announced Tuesday (Jan 23), as pressure grows on police over their handling of rape cases.

Police in four states have signed up to the "Justice For Her" initiative, with Sheffield Hallam University in Britain.

Fifty-one centres, which aim to improve access to justice for victims, will be opened in Madhya Pradesh state which has the country's worst record for rape cases.

The New Delhi region and the northern states of Haryana and Punjab have also signed up.

Lawyer Helena Kennedy, a member of Britain's House of Lords upper chamber, said the initiative could be a "watershed moment" in India.

"The first step towards tackling this issue is giving sanctuary for those who have been victims of these terrible crimes, whilst also providing the relevant authorities with the skills and power to address the problem with confidence," Kennedy said when launching the project in New Delhi.

India has been in the global spotlight since the 2012 gang rape and murder of a woman on a New Delhi bus sparked angry protests.

The number of reported rape cases has grown since then. The government has promised to speed up trials and set up hotlines but rights groups say authorities are still not doing enough.

The apathetic response of police after the rape of a 19-year-old student by four men outside a Madhya Pradesh railway station in November sparked a new outcry.

Police initially accused the woman of inventing the story and mocked her. Four officers have since been sacked.

Madhya Pradesh has the worst record for sexual assaults among India's 29 states, with nearly 5,250 cases reported in 2016 out of the 39,000 nationally.

The support centres will provide medical attention, police liaison, legal advice and counselling.

A training programme will aim to make police more sensitive in handling sexual assault and improving access to justice.

Many victims have complained of being coerced by police, who either urged them not to file cases or refused to register complaints.

For many victims, justice remains distant as trials drag on for months and often years. Some accused have bought freedom by bribing officials or threatening victims.

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